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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Witness
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs   Summer 2012

Twenty years before the play's opening a photojournalist in Rwanda took an award-winning picture of a live baby on a pile of corpses. He then saved the child, adopted her and raised her in England. Now the young adult is beginning to explore her roots and question the story she was told. 

Given that premise, you couldn't write Vivienne Franzmann's new play yourself, but very little in it is likely to surprise you. Lies and half-truths will be brought to light, the man's morality as father and journalist will be questioned, things will be said in anger or desperation that can't be withdrawn, and life will not go on as before. 

This is not to say that Franzmann's play is unoriginal or badly written – on the contrary – but that she has chosen to explore and put her own stamp on a somewhat formulaic outline. 

She does so largely by recognising what others might not – that this is really the father's story, not the daughter's. It is he who has been keeper of the secrets, who is made to face his responsibility and even culpability, who has the most to lose and loses the most. 

Guided by director Simon Godwin, the always reliable Danny Webb gives one of his finest performances ever, a subtly nuanced portrait of a man forced to admit failings he is aware of and face others he's hidden from himself, a journey that takes him through a wide range of believable and convincing emotions. 

The daughter's journey, however dramatic, is the comparatively simpler one of learning surprising things, adjusting to them and making decisions based on the new information, and Pippa Bennett-Warner takes her through it with sympathy and clear insight. The trigger for the play's events is the appearance of a third person, and though he is more a plot device than a real character, David Ajala fleshes him out nicely. 

Special mention must be made of Lizzie Clachan's design, creating a multi-level house out of the Upstairs Theatre's black box, with the audience virtually flies on the wall.

Gerald Berkowitz


Review - The Witness - Royal Court 2012 
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